FORSAKING All OTHERS
THE SISTER WIFE SERIES
By ALLISON PITTMAN
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2011 Allison Pittman
All right reserved.
Near Salt Lake City January 1858
Smoke. And darkness. And warmth.
"I think she's wakin'. Go fetch the colonel." A man's voice, one I didn't know. A momentary blast of cold air, and I remembered the storm, the roaring wind and swirling snow that carried me here.
"Ma'am?" Closer now. I felt a warm hand against my cheek. "You're going to be just fine."
I wanted to smile, but my lips felt dry, tight. When I tried to speak, they peeled apart, grating against each other like thin, dry bark.
"Don't you try to speak none. Just show me, can you open your eyes?"
I wanted to, if only to see where it was the Lord had brought me, but already the voice was falling away, like words being dropped down a well. Sight seemed too heavy a burden, so I contented myself with what senses I could muster—the soft sound of a crackling fire, the sweet smell of the wood burning within it, and the warmth, blessed warmth, covering my body from my toes to my chin. The weight of it pinned me down.
* * *
Time passed. How much, I couldn't know, but enough for me to develop an unutterably powerful thirst. I pried my lips apart, worked my tongue between them. Just that little movement brought the presence to my side again. A new touch to my temple, a new voice in my ear. Deeper, stronger.
Of their own accord, my eyes opened. I saw nothing at first, but then he moved into my sight. Long hair brushed behind his ears, a full moustache covering his top lip. His eyes were closed at first, and the moustache bobbed as he said, "Thank you, Lord." Then they opened, and in the fire's light they shone warm and brown.
"Shh." He held a finger to his lips. "Time enough for that later. I'm Colonel Charles Brandon of the United States Army. Outside of Jesus himself, you couldn't be in better hands. Now, how about some water?"
I gave no response, but I didn't need to. I tracked him with my eyes as he reached behind himself and produced a blue tin cup. He took a sip.
"Just testing. Don't want it too hot."
Then my head was cradled in his hand and he placed the cup against my mouth. The first sip burned, then soothed as I swallowed.
I opened my lips wider in response, and I heard him whisper, "That's a girl," as he gauged just when to take the cup away. He must be a father, too.
"Now," he said, laying my head back, "if you'll consent." He reached into his coat pocket and took out a thin, silver flask. "I'm in no way a drinking man myself, and I don't want to lead you down the path of evil, but if you'll permit me to mix just a few drops of whiskey in that water, it'll toast your blood right up."
My first instinct should have been to say no, but speaking was still beyond my strength, and truthfully, my thoughts were still cloudy enough that his words had no impact. He took my silence as permission and twisted the lid off the flask. With caution and precision, he drizzled a bit of the amber liquid into the water remaining in the blue cup and swirled it.
"For this, you'll need to sit up a little straighter."
He moved behind me and, this time, put his arm beneath my shoulders. I could feel the brass of his cuff buttons against my skin, hitting me with the realization that I was fully naked beneath a pile of wool blankets and bearskin. I twisted my head, panicked, and he instantly interpreted my terror.
"I know and I'm sorry. But we couldn't have you wearing twenty pounds of wet clothes. Now I wish we'd had some old Indian woman to help us out, but we're just a bunch of soldiers. If it helps, I held a gun on 'em and kept 'em blindfolded."
I didn't believe him, but I cared a little less.
"When you're ready, drink this down."
Just the smell of the whiskey in the water brought new life to my senses. Sharpened them, somehow, opened me up to the thought of drinking it down.
"All one drink," he said behind me. "If you sip it by half, you won't drink the rest."
I nodded, braced myself, and closed my eyes. I don't know what I was expecting, but I felt only warmth. Heat was followed by clarity, and when Colonel Brandon lowered me once again to what I now recognized as a buffalo skin–covered cot, I was fully ready to speak.
"Thank you." My voice was hoarse, and then I remembered screaming into the storm.
He cocked his head. "Doesn't sound to me like you're quite up for telling your story."
He was right. I couldn't. But it had nothing to do with my throat.
"If it's all right, though, I'd like to ask you just a couple of questions." He set the cup down on the ground next to him and took a small piece of yellow paper out of the same pocket where he kept the flask. "Can you tell me who Missy is?"
The name shot through my heart. "My daughter. Her name's Melissa. And Lottie."
He checked his paper, and the pleasant expression he'd worn since my eyes opened to him disappeared, replaced with a fur- rowed, worried brow. "Are they—were they traveling with you?"
I shook my head as tears gathered in my eyes.
"They're safe at home?"
"Well, thank God for that."
And I did as my head filled with visions of them, cozily tucked into their bed or sitting on the braided rug in front of the stove, happily playing with their dolls at the feet of—
"Nathan? Is he your husband?"
"Yes." I tried to sit up. "Is he here? Did he come for me?"
"Shh ..." Again his warm hand soothed my brow, and exhausted, I lay back. "No, ma'am. Nobody's come for you."
"Then how do you know?"
He showed me the paper. Three words—Missy, Lottie, Nathan—and one letter: K.
He smiled. "Private Lambert wasn't sure of the spelling."
"She's taking care of my daughters."
"I see." I could tell he wanted to know more, but I hadn't the strength. It wasn't the time. "You've been sleeping on and off for close to twenty hours, and that's just since we found you. Now, for me you've been nice and quiet, but I guess when Private Lambert pulled his shift, you decided to talk a little bit. He picked out a few names."
"And he said you seemed to do a lot of praying."
"The way I figure, those prayers brought my scouts out to find you. Nothing but unbroken snow, they said; then there you were, hanging on to that horse. Why, that animal herself is a miracle."
"You have to send her back. To my husband."
"Time enough for that. We'll get you feeling better, and then we'll get both of you safely home."
More tears, and now they fell, sliding straight down into my ears. "I don't have a home."
He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Now, don't be silly. Everybody's got a home."
"Not me. I had one, and I left it. I had to."
His voice dropped to a whisper, even though as far as I could tell, the two of us were quite alone. "Are you one of them, then? A Mormon?"
"Yes." Then quickly, "No. I mean I was, for a time. But not really, not in my heart. And now—God, forgive me ..." Whatever else I meant to say disappeared in the drought of my throat. I mustered what strength I could and turned on my side, my back to Colonel Brandon, and curled up with my regret.
Taking a liberty I could have never imagined, he put his hand on my shoulder, tugging me to face him. As I complied, he smoothed my hair from my brow and brought his face so close to mine I could feel his breath.
"Now you listen to me. I don't want you to be frightened for one more minute. Not for yourself and not for your girls. I'm here for you. The United States Army is here for you. And as I've sworn my life as a sacrifice for freedom, I will make it my promise that you'll have a home."
"How?" I'd brought the blanket up to my face, and it muffled my question. Still, he heard.
"You leave that up to me. Another drink?"
As an answer, I sat myself up on my elbows, holding the covers nearly to my chin.
Silently, he filled the cup with water from a pot sitting on a grate by the fire and added a little from a clay pitcher. Then he lifted the flask, holding it like a question. Remembering the pleasant warmth, I nodded, and as before, he measured in a tiny stream and swirled the cup. I continued to hold the covers as he tipped the cup against my mouth, and this time I took the drink in several satisfying gulps.
"That's the last of that for you."
"That's fine," I said, lying back down.
"Now sleep. And don't worry. When you wake up, I'll be here."
"And then, it sounds like we might have a bit of a battle on our hands."
Excerpted from FORSAKING All OTHERS by ALLISON PITTMAN Copyright © 2011 by Allison Pittman. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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